By Mark Lester Ranchez
It wasn’t too many years ago when Dewayne Johnson, who also goes with the name Lee, lived a good life: nice house with his family and a decent paying job at a local school in his town. But four years ago he found out he had acquired cancer, and on its terminal stage, after being drenched in Roundup, the herbicide he used to spray weeds as a school groundskeeper. With the shock from the news, and the shortage of answers from the former producer of the herbicide, Monsanto, everything started to plummet. At least that’s what he claimed at the community gathering at Leilehua High School on the 24th of June, with two of DOE’s personnel—Chairperson Catherine Payne and Superintendent Christina Kishimoto—and many concerned and outraged citizens from around the islands, in a State-wide conversation on effectively regulating or banning restricted pesticides on school properties.
With bittersweet enthusiasm, Johnson recounted his job as an Integrated Pest Manager at the school he was working, detailing how the herbicide, in an fateful accident, spilled through his Personal Protective Equipment gear, and drenched his body with the chemical glyphosate. Initially, he didn’t think of his situation grave, he confided. However, just a few months after, he started to see growth of lesions around his body, and after a visit with a dermatologist, he found out that he had acquired non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in white blood cells. At once, he sought reasons from Monsanto, whom he got little to none explanation. However, through browsing the internet, he discovered the company’s nefarious dealings with the herbicide, and its attempt to quiet the controversy. He then sued the multi-billion dollar company, and miraculously won, the world dubbing him the first man to have won against one of the most powerful and controversial corporations in the world.
The participants, however, were not exactly enthused, especially by the DOE’s performance in the implementation of better and clearer regulations of pesticide and herbicide usage in Hawaii, which was the focus of the meeting—there was a collective vexation and displeasure inside the room. A concerned citizen expressed her frustration with the lack of a clearer policy on regulation and on how to hold accountable its transgressors. “[These chemicals] should not be around children,” she said, noting that suggestions from the community will not be taken into heed unless the policy is very clear.
Theresa K., an alumnus of the school and a parent, however, said that “policy is nothing when there is law,” referring to Hawaii law 149A, or Hawaii Pesticides Law, that states regulations of pesticides usage in the islands, which was only passed earlier this year. “My kids no longer go to any of the [alumni] farm events,” she said, “because they are rampant with chemicals. And they lie about it straight to your face.”
Franny Corpus, a resident of Maui and Molokai, said that spraying of the chemical glyphosate on school grounds is almost “criminal,” stating that if there is a law or a policy already on place, then why are schools still using lethal pesticides?
In DOE’s defense, Kishimoto cited that there is, in fact, a policy in effect regarding pesticide and herbicide usage in the State’s campuses. However, it is accountability and surveillance that complicate the situation (and the lack of “teeth” of these regulations, as commented and echoed by many of the participants). When asked about what the DOE’s immediate action would be, she said they are currently looking at two actions: 1) to scrutinize more the organization’s purchase system, and all acquisitions that use the State funds; and 2) to clarify what is in each campus’s “drawers,” and what is to be expected of the policy. However, should concerned parents or community members see campuses still utilizing restricted pesticides, like Roundup, she strongly suggested to refrain from confronting the administering personnel and to directly communicate with the appropriate bodies, i.e. the principal or the complex area superintendent. “This is about following through and making sure every level of the organization, everyone understands, not only what the policy is but also why the policy is in place, and how important it is,” she said.
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